Friday, 27 May 2016

What's the record number of times anyone has seen Star Wars? Anyone beat 102?

A 1977 audience waits in line to see Star Wars

Last time at Episode Nothing, we considered the case of Daniel Henning, a boy who saw Star Wars 102 times – and not on video, but in a cinema. Today, we give further consideration to the people who saw the film multiple times, and who became a key part of the Star Wars phenomenon.

How many times have you seen Star Wars?

Star Wars, Saturday Night Fever,
Bad News Bears: the films of 1977 

Like many people, I struggle to count the number of times I've seen Star Wars. I could only begin by counting the specific occasions I remember and then estimating how many more there must have been.

I know I saw it once on its first UK release, in 1978, and didn't see it again until 1982, when it was issued on a double bill with The Empire Strikes Back (when I saw it twice on the same day).

I watched it again via about three TV showings. I saw a friend's off-air recording of one of those and, when our household got a VCR, I made my own recording. In 1984, there was the triple bill cinema release. Then there was the first affordable VHS release, the widescreen VHS and the Executor VHS boxed set. Then the Special Edition at a cinema, the VHS of that, the first DVD and the 2006 issue of the theatrical version on DVD. (I still haven't seen the Blu-ray all the way through.)

So that's sixteen different occasions to start with, but from there I'd have to decide what multiple I'd need to apply to estimate the total number of viewings. How many times did I watch that first off-air recording all the way through? Five? Ten? Twenty? I'm guessing my total number of viewings in all formats might edge close to a hundred, but after this many years, it's guesswork.

I do know, however, that only five of those viewings were on a big screen, and only one was at the time of the original release. In my family, people didn't see films at a cinema more than once. It was expensive, and anyway, it just wasn't done. I did dream idly of watching it again, as its release stretched on for months afterwards and it left the biggest screens to reach the smaller venues. But I don't think I felt cheated that I didn't go back, because that would have been very unusual. Fortunately for George Lucas's bank balance, an awful lot of fans were able to return.

The opposite of me in this respect might be Daniel Henning, the fan mentioned in last week's post. He saw the film 102 times – and every one of them on a big screen.

He writes here that his mother worked nights across the street from a theater on Alameda, an island in the San Francisco, and that sending him to see Star Wars twice every night (and five times at weekends) constituted cheap childcare for his mother.

It is just possible that he was the luckiest child on Earth. What could beat the experience of seeing Star Wars 102 times, short of being in it?

How people saw Star Wars over and over … and why

Star Wars on release in 1977

It's worth noting that Star Wars was not the first film that fans saw multiple times. I'm sure many people have someone in their family who remembers seeing The Sound of Music (1965) more than once. That was another 20th Century-Fox release whose theatrical life ran from months into years. I've heard people tell of seeing My Fair Lady (1964) a number of times too. But the phenomenon of large numbers of people seeing a non-musical film repeatedly was pretty much unheard of until Star Wars.

It's worth considering why people felt moved to see it so many times. There are plenty of films that people see once and enjoy a lot, without feeling the need to go back and repeat the experience. But Star Wars had something people wanted to experience again.

Firstly, I think there is the sheer pace of the film. This may be less obvious to younger audiences, when many more films are frenetically edited and directors seem unwilling to hold any one shot for longer than a couple of seconds. But back in 1977, the action sequences in Star Wars moved faster than anything we were used to. There was a lot that flitted by.

Linked to this fast pace is the fact that the film was extraordinarily exhilarating. Scenes like the blast-off from Mos Eisley, the escape from the Death Star and, of course, the trench run were hugely intense kinetic experiences. Yes, the visual effects were like nothing we had seen before, but so was the way sequences were constructed.

And then there is the sheer amount of detail that goes by in those sequences. George Lucas was determined to create a believable, exotic universe, full of life and incident, and so he packed the Panavision frame with detail. Star Wars is like a Mad magazine with lots of incident going on in the corners of the picture. To this day, I notice new things in the film, and certainly there was so much going on in any one scene that it demanded repeated viewings.

In short, I suspect people came back to Star Wars to experience the intensity of the emotional experience once again … and then kept coming back to geek out at the detail.

All these repeat viewings helped spin out the film's run, so that it was on release for months. This surely must have created a virtuous circle for Fox and Lucasfilm: Fans' repeated viewings kept the film in demand, extending the run so that other fans could return to it. The original US release of Star Wars did not officially end until July 20 1978, and the first re-issue started the next day.

The fans who saw Star Wars multiple times … and those who had to make one viewing last years 

Star Wars fans in line in 1977

It occurs to me now that there were two types of first generation Star Wars fan. There were those lucky ones with the cash or the independence to see it multiple times – and there were those of us for whom that was in impossible dream.

For those of us who couldn't return to the cinema, the film played repeatedly anyway, in our imaginations. We collected a host of merchandising and paraphernalia – the comics, the books, the record albums, the trading cards – and we tried to assemble this in our imaginations into the complete experience. 

I know when I finally got to see Star Wars again, in 1982, it wasn't quite like the film I had in my head. Naturally, it surpassed that. 

How many times do you think you've seen Star Wars? I'd love to hear via the comment form below.


Unknown said...

I couldn't begin to guess. I know I've seen it a whopping four times at the pictures, and half of those were the Special Edition.

I never saw Star wars until the 1982 Double Bill, having been a huge fan of it for two years via its sequel, the storybook, the radio drama, the comic version...

The repeated viewings started in earnest in Autumn 1982 when anyone with a VCR seemed to have taped it off ITV. I made do with frequent showings in friends' houses until my family decided that VCRs aren't the devil's work on Christmas 1985. My first thought on seeing this machine was 'STV are showing Star Wars at New Year'. The rest is a blur.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks Dec. I think that Christmas 1985 showing was also the first time I obtained a full copy of the film for home viewing. (We'd attempted to tape a previous airing but didn't get the first 10 minutes or so!)
Like many people, I suspect, I wiped that recording when I got an official VHS copy -- which turned out to be a mistake, as that ITV version was a rare outing for the mono mix of the film, with its several differences from the stereo versions.

Jim Gleeson said...

I think I saw Star Wars at least four times at the theater. And if you read about it, the sound and sights of it were a little different depending on the theater you went to. Sound during this time was significant. There was mono, dolby, and a third option. And each version of the film varied slightly, so you were never quite getting the same experience. Still, it was all good.